Earthquake Italia

Eagle graffiti on a building in L'Aquila

A Stormy Night

I felt rough that morning as I opened my tent and peered out at the grey light with squinting eyes. The endless rain that night had kept me awake and transformed the campsite near Assisi into muddy mayhem. It was camping misery at its finest and I was in the thick of it with a sopping tent and a puddle of water that squelched through my sodden ground sheet. Clearly, it was time to pack my motorbike and leave the Umbrian Apennines. Further south, the mid Spring weather had to be better.

I left Assisi behind and followed the busy road to Foligno, Spoleto and then on to Terni. There was just one more town in my sights before making my escape to the Adriatic coast. The infamous town of L’Aquila.

L’Aquila…The Eagle

Crains on L'Aquila's Skyline

Perched on the hills just south of the snow crested Gran Sasso massif, L’Aquila is the administrative capital of the Abruzzi region of central Italy. In the past it was a quaint medieval town with its fair share of attractive baroque and renascence architecture, a fine Spanish fort and beautiful basilicas worth a visit. L’Aquila was home to just under seventy thousand people and had a lively student community with a university known for it’s courses in engineering and science.
In the early hours of the 6th April 2009 everything in this appealing, small Italian town came to a grinding halt. An earthquake, 5.8 in magnitude (Richter scale) ripped through the squares, the alleys and architecture sowing death and destruction in one of the biggest natural disasters Italy has witnessed in recent years.

I had never been to a disaster area and held some reservations as to how appropriate a visit might be. After all, I intended to take pictures and poke my nose into people’s hardship and misfortune. Several years from the quake had passed though and I guessed visitors were now welcome to take an interest in the recovery process.

Abbandoned condominium, damaged by earthquake

A Sky full of Crains

L’Aquila greeted me with the uncanny sight of a crane crowded horizon. There was little traffic on the roads that led me to the old town, no cafes, no markets, no shops or offices either. Suddenly, disjointed and awkwardly leaning buildings appeared. There were condominiums four to five stories high, empty and abandoned with banners advertising their imminent “special demolition”. The walls were cracked with recurring “X” shaped patterns whilst wide patches of missing masonry gave a feeling of total neglect. Doors and shutters were left purposely open and made the eerie hollowness of empty homes all the more glaring. This was just the beginning.

X shaped crack patterns on earthquake buildings

The closer I rode towards the old centre the greater the sense of devastation. Older buildings of historical value, the ones that make up so many of Italy’s old town centres, were wrapped up in braces, steel prop up armour designed to support the “palazzi” and stop them from crumbling to waste. Those were the lucky buildings. Many smaller ones were simply left to their sorry fate with broken walls revealing bathrooms and kitchens of crumbling ex family homes.

The majority of roads were blocked off to traffic and access even on foot. Wooden barricades didn’t permit as much as a peek at what was hidden behind.

Most jaw dropping of all to me though was the sight of the thirteenth century church of S. Maria di Paganica. Once an iconic symbol of L’Aquila, this place of worship now missed the roof above its nave and three-quarters of the once frescoed apsis was reduced to a heap of chipping on the ground.

Old building in steel braces

Crooked home in steel braces

S. Maria di Paganica in ruin

Ask the Locals

I was aghast at the destruction, the endless ruins and the ghostly stillness around me. I plucked up some courage though and asked a couple of strolling locals what they felt about their town and how the disaster had affected their lives. Young, perhaps in their early thirties, they didn’t mind my questions and answered with a smile about life as a “teremotato” (literally an “earthquaked person”).
“It’s like putting your life on hold indefinitely” they said.
“Some can’t take it and leave for a new start elsewhere. Others stay and help in the reconstruction efforts”.
“We are all aware though that life in our hometown as we knew it, is over. The old communities have been erased for good. Many people have died.”
“What’s bothering is that L’Aquila is now known for what happened here with the earthquake more than anything else. Those who come to visit these days have little idea of what our town was like before April of 2009”.

Broken homes in L'Aquila

My Tent

I left l’Aquila with a heavy heart, shaken and shocked. Images and words cannot describe the feeling of disbelief and helplessness that the old town conveys in its current state. I felt for the people of this place and their precarious sense of identity with a home town that is now a pale reminder of its former self. Livelihoods, careers, community, homes, all gone, all demolished. I thought of the over 300 fatalities of that distant April morning in 2009. Many were young students, just starting out in life.I left l’Aquila with a heavy heart, shaken and shocked. Images and words cannot describe the feeling of disbelief and helplessness that the old town conveys in its current state. I felt for the people of this place and their precarious sense of identity with a home town that is now a pale reminder of its former self. Livelihoods, careers, community, homes, all gone, all demolished. I thought of the over 300 fatalities of that distant April morning in 2009. Many were young students, just starting out in life.

I rode away and searched for a place to camp for the night as it got dark. It didn’t matter any more if it meant more cold, rain and lack of sleep inside my wet tent and damp sleeping bag. After what I had just seen in L’Aquila, any camping hardship for the night was a very minor thing in comparison. At most, I hoped it might be a small tribute to the tenacity of the Aquilaians.

Some facts

  • Over 300 people lost their lives in the earthquake.
  • Around 60,000 were left homeless.
  • L’Aquila’s old town centre was declared off-limits for over a year as the foundations for reconstruction work were being set.
  • Reconstruction efforts have been hampered by public contracts awarded to companies with ties to the Mafia.
  • In what some have described as a Witch Hunt, six geo scientists were convicted for man slaughter in 2011 for allegedly producing “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information” or, simply put, “unjustifiably reassuring information ” relating to tremors ahead of the earthquake of 6th April 2009.
    All the scientists were acquitted on appeal in 2015.

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2017, all rights reserved.

Sasha’s Dacha in Sochi

track and fountain sunset no logo

Learning Russian

“Sasha has a Dacha in Sochi”…..these  words taunted me throughout my Russian CD course some years ago. It was a catch phrase, part of a jingle designed to tell the student that it was time to wrap things up at the end of a lesson before moving on with the program.

Russian is no easy language, even the basics are frustratingly tough and not much stuck with me from the lessons on those CDs. However, “Sasha’s dacha…”, the words and the annoying jingle I fear will be with me for life.  “Саша имеет дачу в Сочи”. “One day”, I remember thinking, “One day, I’m gonna check out that dacha in Sochi and maybe even Sasha as well.”

Beach and Sunshine

Sochi is on the Russian East coast of the Black Sea at no more than a few hour’s motorcycle ride from the city of Krasnodar. It thrives as a summer holiday resort for locals and, in Soviet times, was no doubt a prized retreat for the Communist “nomenklatura”.

The town mostly hits the headlines these days when it hosts the annual Russian Formula One Grand Prix, or when it’s the chosen venue for a notable international convention of some kind. Sochi was also the venue for 2014 Winter Olympics which was definately odd for a location known for beaches and sunshine.

Krasnodar dealerrship

My chance to visit Sochi came as I explored the Russian plains north of the Caucasus on my motorcycle. I had ordered spare parts for Lucy (my motorbike) and needed to wait while these travelled to the Krasnodar BMW dealership from Moscow. “Perhaps”, I thought, “I’ll really get to see a dacha in Sochi after all!”

The Riviera

The narrow Black Sea riviera road twisted  its way around the limestone outcrops under the warm June sun. I caught occasional glimpses of the sea in the openings between the bushes and trees just off the road to my right. The water sparkled for a few short instances before it vanished from sight, sometimes for a mile or two, and then reappeared  glittering to the horizon.

There were magnificent Stone Pine trees to admire, just like the ones I knew from the Mediterranean with high dark green canopies that offered welcome relief along the road from the biting sun and littered the ground with twiggy pine needles.

Motorbike on the riviera

The scenery however, was no Mediterranean landscape. The pine trees, to start with, were not as dominant as they so often are along the coastlines of Italy, Spain and France. It was leafy trees like the ash and sycamore that claimed most of the scenery at the water’s edge. Also, the symphony of tireless cicadas that pace the hot mediterranean summer days was totally absent here and there was no real “buzz” from insects in the foliage at all. It actually felt very still, a little eerie and odd. The beaches were pebbly rather than sandy and the water, most of all, had a dark, bluish green tinge, never quite turquoise like in Greece or Spain.  I guessed the Black Sea must have earned it’s name this way, though I’m sure there’s probably another story to that.

Downtown Sochi

Sochi Columns

Sochi greeted me with tall hotel blocks, traffic and busy shopping centres no different to other family holiday resorts around the world. Young couples with children eating ice cream crowded the pavements while the elderly mostly sat on benches in the shade. Powerful  German sports cars ploughed up and down the main coast strip and contended the road with American Harley’s, Italian and Japanese sports bikes. This was clearly a place for the show of affluence. Accommodation wasn’t cheap either and I struggled to find a room for less than fifty Euro.

There was definitely something about downtown Sochi that reeked of nostalgia. Most of the hotel architecture was grim and boring. It looked like the construction work had been done in a hurry in the late sixties and seventies without much thought for design. The beaches were dull, rather cramped and narrow and the pebbles made walking bare foot uninviting. The odd stretches of soft grey sand were few and far apart.

However, family fun and atmosphere was everywhere to see with excited children playing with delight in the water and watchful mothers and fathers close by. Water scooters for rent and floating “banana raft” rides were available as well. Also, there was no shortage of blaring Russian dance music from bars and restaurants especially on the “Primorskaya Ulitsa” promenade where most of the beachfront action took place.

Sochi Beach 1

Sochi beach again

After dark I found that night life offered a variety of open air bars with the usual lights, lasers and DJs playing Russian music. Young couples danced side by side with older ones. Sons and daughters danced with parents and grandparents while small kids darted around mischievously. It was a family atmosphere for sure although this did not deter the adults from the consumption of outstanding amounts of alcohol in a stereotypical Russian way. I couldn’t help noticing how the dancing became more and more imaginative as the hours went by.

The Olympic Park

The Sochi Olympic Park was next on my list of highlights to check out. A huge construction project completed in 2014, still shiny and new,  just a few kilometres south of the old town.

Olympic Stadium

Medalion square

The spectacular park contained the Fisht Olympic Stadium, the Bolshoi Ice dome, the Arena Skate Centre, the Sochi Autodrome (Russian Grand Prix) and more. There was also a theme park for family and kids but perhaps most interesting of all features was the Sochi Medal Plaza with its huge  fountain known as the “Waters of the Olympic Park”. Behind the fountain stood the rather phallic looking Olympic cauldron upon which the Olympic flame had burned for the entirety of the past Olympic Games. Every Saturday night at the fountain there’s an magnificent water and lights display which I was lucky enough to see and enjoy. 

Wrapping it Up

Did I like Sochi? Yes and no. It’s a family resort for a family holiday. It’s expensive and frankly the beaches are disappointing. However, the atmosphere is relaxed and chilled. There is entertainment and something for everyone.

Would I go back? Probably not, but perhaps I would be tempted for the Russian Grand Prix or to watch some soccer at the Olympic Stadium during the 2018 FIFA World Cup (to be held in Russia).

Did I find Sasha’s Dacha? There were many beautiful houses and villas around Sochi. It occurred to me though, as I admired them, that I had no idea of what a real dacha was supposed to look like. So, I like to think that Sasha was there, somewhere…..and I hope he’s doing just fine!

Travellingstranger Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

Snake Charmer’s Bluff

Snake Charmer in India

A Hike on a Warm Day

The heat started to get to me that day on the trail to the waterfall on the hills around Manali (northern India). I could feel the noon sun bite the back of my neck and the uncomfortable sting of sweat in my eyes. The views in the Summer heat though were enchanting with pine forest, rich green hills and rocky outcrops to admire. There was also the occasional small challenge on my path from “holy cows” laughably determined to block my way forward. Suddenly though, somewhere ahead, a sound unexpected, caught me off guard. The eerie repetitive notes of a Pungi drifted and curled in the air and beckoned my curiosity from somewhere not far off on my trail. I knew the sound was no ordinary one as the Pungi, in India, is a snake charmer’s tool.

Holy cow on hiking path in IndiaA few twists and turns ahead on my path and I broke through to an opening where indeed I found a fakir practicing his charming art. There were two baskets in front of him and only one open from which a small brown hooded cobra swayed and danced to the snake charmer’s tune. I stared at the spectacle with awe, almost in a trance myself. Such bravado was rarely displayed in my part of the world. Actually, the times I ever encountered a snake in the wild were very few back home.

The charmer noticed my mesmerised gaze and motioned me to come closer. Like the cobra under his spell I obeyed and shuffled by his side.

In my school days, as a lad, I read of far away lands and would sometimes reflect upon the marvels of nature. I boyishly wondered of things such as sharks in the barrier reefs, the pay load capacity of an average sized condor or the likely winner of a fight between tiger and lion. There were also pressing questions about snakes and their bites.

Suddenly one of those schoolboy queries, specifically from the snakes and venom department, came thundering back to my mind. Finally there was a chance for a long awaited answer!

“Sir, what do you do if you get bitten by one of your cobras?” I asked with a beam.

The charmer stopped playing his pipe and looked at me with a smile.

“I have my own remedy here in my bag” he replied.

“Have you ever been bitten? I enquired.

“Yes, several times”.

“Can I see the remedy, Sir?” I asked with excitement expecting some kind of magic like potion, a concoction of herbs and maybe animal parts, too.

The charmer opened his black sack, rummaged for a while and handed me a worn looking book. Quickly he resumed his snake charming antics and stirred the same cobra from earlier before. The animal danced a metre or so in front of me and for a second or two I looked the snake in the eyes. Somehow I knew I was not in real danger and with a hint of disdain I opened the book that I held.

It was a photo album. Pictures of family including parents, siblings, cousins and friends. The charmer had pictures of himself as well with snaps of him resting under Hindu shrines, meditating inside temples or embracing holy men of some kind. Nice! But clearly this was no remedy for a snake bite let alone that of a venomous cobra
“Interesting pictures Sir, but the rem…..”

I had hardly finished the sentence that the charmer grabbed one of his baskets and forced it into my hands. Like a flash the lid came off and the Pungi started to whine. I watched as the inevitable unfolded. The hooded head of a cobra emerged and extended out of the box. The flustered snake glanced and darted its tongue at me briefly and then adjusted its sights on the charmer.

The only thing I could think of though was that all this was a ploy to avoid that answer to my burning question. The boy inside me was raging. I would not pass on the chance of a lifetime for a real answer on what a snake charmer does when bitten by his own snake, not even a dancing cobra within striking distance was gonna stop me.

Sitting with a snake charmer
“Yes, really nice..ehh….what do we do if the snake bites?” I asked still with basket in hand.

For my insolence the charmer opened another box behind him fumbled inside with his hand and pulled out another reptile that he then placed gently around my neck. I hoped there and then it might be a harmless python but at the time I couldn’t be sure. Steve, my hiking buddy that day, took a picture of my sorry state with cobra and adorning living necklace.
At this point I figured it best to stop asking the charmer questions.
Slowly the snake charmer ran out of breath and put down his flute like instrument. The cobra relaxed and fell back in its basket which was then taken from my hands. The snake on my neck was next to go back in its box.
With the threat of venom gone I turned my gaze back to the snake charmer’s eyes. He smiled and knew that my question was coming again.

“Sir, the remedy for snake bites?” I insisted with a smile.

“Ah, yes”.  The poor man rummaged in his black sack once again and produced a piece of pink polished clay-stone about the size of a grown man’s thumb. He handed it to me and said:

“When I get bitten by cobra I rub this stone on the wound and after two or three hours everything is well”.

I looked at the small rock in disbelief. There, the mystery was solved. Finally, my boyish desire to know was satisfied. Now, I had the truth!

So, what to make of it?

So my friends, it certainly doesn’t take a background in geology to figure out the reality behind the appearance.

Many snakes used by snake charmers have been mutilated. Their poison glands ripped from inside them and their venomous fangs filled with wax. Occasionally the mouths of these poor creatures are sowed shut with thin fishing line and in extreme cases the snakes are not even fed while in the custody of their charmers.
I am by no means implying that there are no real snake charmers out there doing the real snake charming thing. Nor am I saying that all snake charmers are charlatans. What I am suggesting though, is that those who resort to a lump of clay to cure unlikely poisonous cobra bites, most probably are!

 

Travellingstranger Copyright 2017, all rights reserved.

Black Sea Crossing…..away from conflict.

My route across Ukraine was blocked. People were shot at every day a few hundred kilometres ahead of me in the war torn Donbas area close to the border with Russia. Snipers were busy and artillery shells pounded, even civilian jet liners were blown from the sky as separatist rebels and government forces exchanged blows for control and sovereignty. It was unthinkable for anyone to cross the zone unscathed. My only option for further travel East by motorcycle was via a dubious, but much safer ferry service across the Black Sea or a very long detour north via Kiev and beyond.

Mr Vladlem of the UKR Ferry agency fixed an appointment for me at his office in downtown Odessa at eleven o’clock that morning and greeted me with a smile. He thanked me for my punctuality and offered me a seat. A quick look around his cramped working space revealed stacks of paperwork piled on desks and shelves, he was a busy man.

Slowly, in English he gave a well rehearsed speech on what to expect during my three day sail from Odessa to Batumi, in Georgia and warned that the ferry catered mainly for trucks and railway wagons carrying goods and occasionally livestock too. Tourists and motorcycles weren’t really part of the “picture” and there were no frills to be expected on board. I smiled, booked a cabin for myself and paid cash for the passage of one tourist and accompanying motorbike. The “picture” to me was better than a war zone.

The dock was somewhat isolated an hour’s ride South of Odessa and took a while for me to find. There was a run down check in facility with several offices I needed to go through for rubber stamping and passport control. Finally, I was allowed to queue for boarding in an empty square with my bike. To my astonishment and surprise, I found I was not the only motorcycle tourist in line that day. I met Paul, from Scotland, another solo adventure biker also heading East on his mighty KTM 990. Conversation got going and I was happy to have found a new biker pal.

The good ship MS Greifswald was no “family ferry” by any standard. Rather, she was more like some sort of a pick up truck of the sea, packing as Vladlem had told me, a mix of heavy freight vehicles, noisy pigs and sheep, massive rail wagons and a few stacked containers. Paul and I were held back and were amongst the last to board with our iron steads which were parked and secured next to the heavy rolling stock. Then, we were directed to our cabins which although a little bleak were surprisingly clean. I collapsed on my bunk still in my riding gear and closed my eyes. When I woke up some hours later it was dark, the Greifswald had left port and was steaming at sea.

The Cruise

The first night of navigation took us no further than Costanza off the coast of Romania. Here anchors were dropped again for a refuelling stop. As I stumbled out of my cabin early in the morning I learned there had just been some commotion through the night on the main deck . A couple of pigs had broken out of a truck and sparked a frenzied chase around the rail cars. All was in order now but it had taken a while to tire out the animals and secure them back in the truck. I laughed and wondered if this could possibly have happen anywhere else in the world.

The focal point of the Greifswald was definitely the galley. There was a bar open a few hours a day for coffee, tea and expensive beer and this was really the only social event available on board. There was no television, no movies, no internet ……not even karaoke.

Announcements over the intercom were made regularly in Russian and English when meals were about to be served with wishes of a “good appetite” to all.
The food was ok, I mean I liked it and lapped it up without fussing. It’s fair to say though that what we found on our plates were creative combinations to say the least. Pasta served with a breaded fish and tomatoes, or spaghetti with a scoop of liver and baked beans. Russian borsch followed by mash and rye. Breakfast was my favourite: semolina, cabbage, sausage and bread with a cup of lemon tea. I noticed Paul struggled with the variety sometimes. In my mind it was all still better than food in a war zone.

Conclusion

So my friends, all in all the ferry crossing on the Black Sea took almost four days. It should have taken no more than three however, the long fuel stop in Romanian waters, some choppy weather conditions and a technical glitch once docked in Batumi stretched my crossing that little bit further.

I found the Greifswald enjoyable, really! The basic service on board was comfortable enough and certainly left me with enduring memories. The staff was mostly accommodating and courteous. Perhaps the food could have done with a little more care but that was part of the experience too. The long crossing was a chance to relax and get away from riding my motorcycle every day and to catch up with my thoughts in a clean cabin that was luxury enough for me. I had time to plan some routes beyond Georgia and write some emails to send as soon as I found and internet connection once more.

Useful Info

In May 2016 the crossing cost 270 Euro. This included passage for my motorbike, a clean quiet cabin to myself and all meals as well.
The connection between Odessa and Batumi is a regular service that runs at least twice a week although I recommend getting in touch with the UKR ferry office in Odessa a few days before you intend to sail. Their website in English and contact details are easy to find on the net.

http://www.ukrferry.com/eng/schedules

The Greifswald has space for cars and vans along with motorbikes and trucks.
One last word of caution…if there is livestock on board you can expect smell when stepping outside in the open. It gets worse after day two and by day four all the animals are moaning about it too, it can be foul ?!
Copyright 2017. Special thanks to Paul Maclean for pictures!

Transnistria……now you see it, now you don’t!

St George ribbon bill boarding Tiraspol

The Setting

People may voluntarily choose not to see issues or deny uncomfortable truths in their lives such as debt, addiction, sometimes love………surprisingly for some, even the lunar landing !

Arguably though, the most astonishing examples of mass denial remain those relating to the “invisibility” of entire countries. Yes, entire nations remain unacknowledged by the greater part of the international community and consequently do not formally exist for the world at large.

This is usually the case for “break away” territories, disputed areas in which unresolved or frozen conflict (call it what you will), creates a political and military limbo between arguing factions with no clear resulting sovereignty. Sometimes these areas declare their autonomy to the globe but remain de facto without UN representation and fail to play any part in international organisations or treaties. Transnistria, on the border between Moldavia and Ukraine, is one of these invisible countries.

The Border

I got to the western Transnistrian border on my motorcycle feeling a little apprehensive but excited at the same time too, eager to discover what there was ahead. I could see the barrier to the break away territory several hundred metres away but was forced to stop well before by smartly dressed uniformed officials bearing European Union insignia on cap and sleeve.

“Do you know what lies beyond that barrier?” I was asked in English.

“I believe so” I replied.

“You will be entering a disputed territory”

“Yes, I am aware”

“Are you also aware that you will have no road insurance, medical cover, telephone cover, limited police assistance…?”

“Ehrrr, really? No, wasn’t totally aware”.

“You will have to buy insurance and there is more than  just a chance that you’ll be asked for a bribe. I recommend you turn back and cross the border to Ukraine further south and avoid Transnistria all together. It’s is the safer option”.

I had come this far and had no intention on missing out on Transnistria.

“Thank you but I’ll continue on my chosen route to the barrier ahead”.

The official smiled in acknowledgement and nodded. He took my passport details, shook my hand and wished me good luck.

Armoured Personnel Carrier parked in Tiraspol

Slowly, I rolled to the barrier in the distance. Stern looking Transnistrian guards wearing Soviet era uniforms with huge pizza sized flat caps greeted me at their imaginary, yet very real border. In English they barked the entrance procedures to their “make believe” country. I listened in silence, then paid 15 Euro for third party insurance and was given a transit permit with instructions to leave the “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic” (Transnistria) later that very same day.

“Good luck” said the Transnistrian official as he handed back my passport and gestured me to go. I was in.
Hammers and Sickles in Tiraspol

Inside Transnistria

Tiraspol is the so called capital of Transnistria. It wasn’t far from the border and the road was smooth and impeccably maintained. As I approached the city I noticed bright Soviet style propaganda around me to admire. There were monuments advertising past Red Army grandeur and banners in remembrance of the Great Patriotic War. In a small square, a shiny armoured personnel carrier was parked by a plaque like some dubious work of art. Often there were red stars, hammers and sickles on billboards to admire as well.
Then, as I rode through the streets of central Tiraspol, stone busts of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as “Comrade Lenin”, adorned the front of government buildings, or any building for that matter, that had a hint administrative significance. I remember feeling rather uneasy with all the grim nostalgia that these icons of the past imposed.

My foreign numberplate did not go unnoticed for very long. As I rode around in an uncertain way looking for photo opportunities I was accosted by a couple of guys who introduced themselves as fellow bikers. One rode a Suzuki the other a Honda. A little banter broke the ice and suspicion soon faded away. In no time I was in conversation, laughing and sipping coffee with Andrei and Ivan at a local caffe. During our chat I learned about problems the locals faced with money grabbing police and the difficulties of living somewhere that nobody formally recognises. Apparently, even obtaining a passport could be awkward.

Huge statue of Lenin in front of ministerial building

My impressions

During the few hours I spent in Tiraspol it was definitely Andrei, Ivan and their acquaintances that made the difference. They were friendly and seemed to take a warm interest in my visit and trip. I received an offer of a place to stay for the night, suggestions of eateries for good food and hot spots for drinks in the evening. People seemed genuinely keen to get to know me and for a while my mind was taken away from the insisting Soviet paraphernalia.

All in all it was a good experience and I think I would return to Transnistria given the opportunity, for a little longer than just an afternoon. However, there was something about the place that kept me constantly on edge. In the back of my mind I couldn’t help wondering who was really in charge of this fictitious country and whether there was any real rule of law. The presence of Soviet symbols everywhere filled me with thoughts of Cold War repression, control and restraint on personal freedom. It was unsettling. At one point I even started wondering whether Ivan and Andrei were some kind of under cover police just making sure I wasn’t snooping around where I shouldn’t!


TravellingStranger in Tiraspol
Some Facts

In September 1990, after the dissolution of Soviet Union, a slither of land to the East of the river Dniester unilaterally declared its independence from Moldavia and set up a utopian state modelled on old Soviet Communist rule. Tensions with the  Moldavian government rapidly escalated to the point of conflict in 1992 during which the Moldavian army (backed by Romania) on one side exchange blows with rebel militia and Russian forces on the other.

A cease fire was agreed in July 1992 which has held for twenty five years and although some autonomy has been granted to the breakaway territories by the Moldavian government, it remains to be seen how long the status quo can hold.

The population of Transnistria is approximately 470,000.

The language is a local variation of Romanian.

The currency is the Transnistrian Ruble.

There are several non recognised countries similar to Transnistria in the world. These include, but are not limited to, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The last two are both situated within the territory of Georgia in the Caucasus.



Travellingstranger Copyright 2017

Adventure Cam Disaster!

Boy and diving mask

“You need to watch your step, but everyone makes it across easily” my guide whispered to me in encouragement as I gazed a little perplexed at the hazel coloured water that stirred, foamed and crested in front of me. “Ok, it’s fine, I’ll do it”, I said.

Stripped down to my swimwear with action camera and selfie stick in hand, I felt vulnerable, exposed to the Sumatran sun and the rough forest around me. I told myself I was just getting ready for the far side of the river where there were hot spring water pools waiting to be enjoyed, the thought of which had brought me by the bank in the first place. I simply had to get across.

The sharp, angular pebbles pinched my bare feet and challenged my balance at every step as I hobbled to the water’s edge. “Everyone makes it across easily” I reminded myself as I held my breath and splashed into the fresh flow. Slowly I waded ahead into deeper, mirky cold running water and quickly I lost view of my feet. They were always in pain though,  gripping to the edge of some slimy surface with all toes. The water got deeper and crept up to my chest, the current got stronger as well. “Good thing I can sling my action camera on my shoulder with the monopole strap. Yeah, and how cool that my action camera has water proof casing” I thought.

I must have looked pathetic as I attempted to thread my arm through the selfie stick strap. I could hardly stand on my own two feet let alone juggle camera equipment as well. Then the inevitable happened, I slipped and fell face forward into the flow. Like driftwood the current swept me away and rushed me downstream in its clench. I had no choice, I had to swim and powerfully too if I wished to reach the safety of the nearest bank and avoid painful knocks with rocks and debris. A few brisk strokes from my arms and I was in shallower water once more, out of trouble but to my dumbstruck dismay my precious Sony action camera and monopole stick were gone, nowhere to be seen, lost in the silty water along with two gigabyte of unsaved videos and pictures.

Losing camera equipment is always regrettably costly, but losing hard earned pictures and video footage as well is gut wrenching to say the least.

But what to do? After all, adventure cameras are meant for use in pretty wild environments where the risk of loss is always a real issue!

Write your contact details on camera and memory card

Here is a list of hints that might be handy for the GoPro enthusiast. I certainly wish I had known about these before that fateful afternoon in Sumatra. Maybe they are nothing new to the avid video maker but I am sure they’re worth remembering all the same.

GoPro floaty add onA) Take the time to write your contact details on a piece of paper and stick this appropriately to the camera body or at least include it in the water tight casing of your camera. ALSO save a “READ ME file” containing the same contact details on the camera’s SD memory card. This way if your device is ever lost and found by someone conscientious enough, all the information needed to get in touch is available.

Sony Floatation add on
B) If using your camera next to water, always use a floatation accessory. It can be self adapted piece of sponge cut out and added to your selfie stick, or a specially purchased add on. There are several products available.

C) Hugely useful, but hard to come by, are floating monopoles. Keep in mind though that a wooden stick is definitely a cheaper option and can work just as well if not better!

D) Make sure the your camera and/or stick have a robust enough tether. Reinforce the stock attachments with sturdy metal rings and good quality cord. Hold on tight!
Adventure cam and monopoly (selfie stick)

So…..sunk to the bottom of the sea, dropped from paragliding heights, knocked from racing motorbikes or cars it would be good to hear of other action camera disasters experienced first hand. I know there are many. Occasionally some lost cameras are found on hiking trails, by the side of the road and by scuba divers too. All hope need not be lost…..at least  for those who have taken some precautions ?.

Travellingstranger Copywright 2017

The Hottest Place on Earth!

	View of the Dasht-e Loot desert in Iran

Lucy (my motorcycle) was perched on her centre stand by the main gates of the guest house in Kerman (Eastern Iran). As I fumbled in the darkness  with the fastenings to my bags there was a hint of apprehension in me for what lay ahead that day. Suddenly, the first glimmers of dawn shattered the night and brought a refreshening early morning breeze that encouraged a smile on my face. “Everything is gonna be just fine” I told myself as I reminisced stories of overland travellers who had followed my same route unscathed. My gear was tightly packed and with a gut full of throbbing excitement I climbed on the bike, fired up the engine and roared away from Kerman onto the highway that lead East, to the Afghan border.

Everyone had warned me about the occurrences on the road to Zahedan. There were stories of lawlessness and gun slinging bandits, some had even used the word “Taliban”. It was best to ride during the hours of daylight only, I was told, and with eyes wide open too. I took  local wisdom seriously but also felt that any chance of being held to ransom by the side of the road was unlikely. To me the bigger issue was about the Dasht el Luut (Lut) desert, one of the hottest deserts on earth, a portion of which I had to cross en route to my destination that day. I had enough fuel range, snacks and water and hoped these were all I needed to get through the desert under the July sun.

Soon enough, past the town of Ban, bright, barren, dry wasteland rushed towards me in warm embrace and the digits on my bike thermometer started to flick quickly. Thirty six, thirty eight, forty degrees (104 F), this was all before ten in the morning! Gone was all vegetation, nobody lived here in this open sun scorched land. I doubted there were any animals either apart from a few scorpions and a few lizards that snacked on scorpions. There was nothing to admire, only sandy bleakness, the road ahead and the occasional truck to honk at and speed by.

Motorcyclist in the Dasht-e Loot desert in Iran
Forty six degrees (115 F) still with plenty desert to go across. I wondered what I would do if I broke down. Maybe the fuel pump or the battery or perhaps the electronics would play up on me. I forcefully pushed this nonsense aside. After all, the cooling fan on my bike had yet to come on once, the engine temperature was steady, Lucy was doing fine. Silently I rode on, engulfed in bright nothingness, stopping only every twenty minutes or so to munch at some dried fruit and sip a little sun heated hot water, that scolded my tongue and throat just like a big swig of vodka would do.

Thermometer in the Motorcyclist in the Lut desert, Iran

Forty eight degrees (118 F). The vast expanse of flat barren land around me was hazy and unclear. In the distance I could see the ghostly outline of massive rocky outcrops and wondered whether these were the last remnants of the Kuhbanan mountain range or the start of the Shuran elevations that I expected ahead of me. Most of all though, I saw no gangs of outlaws or chasing Talibans. It probably wasn’t business hours for them at that time of day. 

Then the thermometer flashed forty nine point five degrees Celsius (121 F). “Come on!” I yelled deliriously under my riding gear, ” Give me fifty!…..I want fifty degrees! …DO IT!” I held my gaze on the display for the next few kilometres as I continued my ride, hoping to see the round number appear, but fifty never came.

The scenery gradually changed after the almost fifty degree climax. A small increase in elevation to the village of Nosrat Abat brought lower temperatures at last. From forty nine degrees the digits fell to a blissful forty four (111 F). Yes, forty four degrees can feel wonderfully refreshing, believe me …

So my friends, I did eventually make it to Zahedan safely. However, crossing a small part off the Lut desert exposed me to the hottest temperature I have ever ridden in and perhaps ever will. Also, this was the last part of my trip I was allowed to travel alone so close to the Afghan border. From Zahedan onward across Baluchistan and all the way to Pakistani Punjab I was given no choice than to follow an armed police escort.

Truck in the Lut Desert, Iran

SOME FACTS

Distance from Kerman to Zahedan is approx 450km, (270 miles).

As of 2016, quality high octane fuel can be found in the town of the Ban, 160km (100 miles) from Kerman. I had to wait until I reached Thailand for more!

Satellite images have proven that the Lut desert of Iran is consistently the hottest place on earth with ground temperatures regularly exceeding sixty degrees Celsius (140 F). Seventy degrees (158 F) is not unheard of either!

On a hot day dry fruit makes a great snack to boost energy. Try!

 Travellingstranger Copyright 2017 

Stopped by the Cops….

Rice fields in Sumatra
The rice paddies on the hills in southern Sumatra were simply beautiful at that time of the day. The sun, low on the horizon, cast it’s late day rays on the water brimmed terraces that reflected the crimson light everywhere in a comforting orange glow. A picture perfect moment I thought as I rode along and considered a spot to stop and make use of my Nikon. Just one more bend on the narrow road and for sure there would be a good photo opportunity waiting for me I told myself. Tripod and lens were already on my mind as I veered into the glaring sun, but what I found around that last bend was far from the perfect opportunity I envisioned. Actually, it made my heart sink straight away.

Getting pulled over by the cops is rarely a welcome event. I have been stopped, or signalled to do so, by some kind of law enforcement officer  in almost every country I crossed on my overland trip from London to Bali. Rarely however, did it turn out to be a stressful occurrence with the need for confrontation (although some firmness at times was necessary). Actually, some encounters with the law ended up with laughter, hand shakes and selfies. Most of all though, there was negligible or no monetary upset whatsoever.

Motorcyclists stopped by police in Georgia
Here are a few rules of thumb I  developed  travelling across Asia. They represent my own personal approach and, commendable or not, it’s what worked for me.

DO NOT STOP !

This can sound controversial but I think  its “best practice” in scenarios in which:

A) The “enforcement officer” is not wearing a uniform, or a fully recognisable outfit.

Of course you should use your good judgement but equally should not feel intimidated by appearances. Twisting the throttle and riding away is a safer option if you keep in mind that there are plenty of time wasting scammers eager for cash in every culture. “I stop for nobody without a uniform” is a very valid mantra. Also, worth remembering is that a flashing blue light on an unmarked car is absolutely no guarantee of the law outside of the western world. BEWARE!

B) No clear and safe area is available to pull over without risking an accident.

This is a very real issue in countries like Iran, Pakistan and India where traffic can be fast paced and simply insane especially after dark in urban areas.

C) You are waved down simply to be looked at (happens often).

You develop a feeling for this sort of scenario. A solo traveller on an exotic machine stands out from the crowd and attracts curiosity. It’s a chance for some officers to break the day’s monotony, chat or similar. In these cases I would  slow down, smile, wave and carry on.

In all of the cases above (A, B, and C), nobody ever chased me!

Motorcyclist by Police in Pakistan

STOPPED, PULLED OVER

It’s hard to argue any violation if proof is caught on camera but there is usually always space for a little negotiation. For example, I discovered that insisting on a receipt before paying any cash worked wonders in some circumstances.

Furthermore, stiff lipped officers changed attitude towards me when I tentatively commented on things such as a desire to go fishing, an interest in football,  the merits or demerits of my motorcycle or enquire about the attitude of local women or seek to understand some aspect of local culture. Invariably there was some softening towards me to the point that smiles appeared. After a little banter the original issue for being pulled over faded to the background and was even forgiven (clearly not forgotten). Perhaps, in most instances there was no real intention to pursue in the first place at all.

Regardless, I have been “forgiven” for speeding, failing to produce an insurance document, riding in lanes reserved for public transport, using highways closed to motorcycle traffic. I have received help from enforcement officers to find accommodation, find money changers, locate hot fishing spots. Most cops I encountered were genuinely cool guys (not all of them mind).

I HAVE NOTICED

A helmet action camera encouraged officers to get rid of me quickly.

Using an open face helmet, sun glasses and riding a white bike with a tall wind shield occasionally got me confused for a motorcycle policeman myself with some amusing reactions from my “would be” colleagues.

I never handed over my original driving licence, vehicle registration document, or passport to the police. I carried high quality laminated colour copies of these  for inspection by the side of the road and they worked just as well.

Motorcyclist pulled over by Police in Indonesia

So my friends, in the end that late afternoon in Indonesia I rode into a police road block but things went just fine. There was a photograph opportunity after all as you can see in the picture above. It just was not the kind  I was expecting. Still, I think a hint of that orange evening light was caught in the frame regardless  ?.